A Futuristic Vision of Higher Education; the Fiddler and Me

By Dr. Larry Fedewa
(Washington DC. July 28,2020) Let me begin by stipulating that I do not consider myself an authority on the future of higher education. I have been too long absent from the field to have insights derived from recent experience. I retain, nevertheless, a keen interest in the topic. Following are some thoughts about the what I would like the higher education of the future to look like.
Who is served by higher education?
 Fundamentally, higher education, like all socialization, serves both the greater society and the individual: society by increasing its cadre of specialized experts in maintaining and advancing society’s technology and life experience; the individual by further defining and securing his/her role in society.
Humankind are all herd animals. We are born with the need to belong to a group of our fellow humans. Sociologists describe those groups as family, clan and tribe, depending on the size and intimacy of the group. “Family” is composed of those we are closest to and is the smallest of the groups. “Clan” denotes a larger, less intimate group, such as our cultural or religious or political associations. “Tribe” is the largest and least intimate of our associations, but equally important to the individual’s well-being, including nation, language, and history.
All humans are also curious. Our search for new knowledge and understanding never ceases, although the range and perspective of inquiry varies considerably from individual to individual, often from time to time for the same person over a lifetime. Within this framework, higher (and all) education primarily serves the tribe by expanding the individual’s scope and perspective of inquiry or curiosity. Life itself is constantly providing the same service, but in a random and unpredictable fashion. Education is supposed to provide perspective and order to the individual’s ability to interpret these experiences in a meaningful context.
What are the criteria for evaluating whether or not higher education is providing a valuable experience? The criteria are easy to identify, if difficult to evaluate. They are: Does higher education fulfill its obligation to society? And to the individual?
a.    Society
Higher education’s obligations to the greater society are twofold: cultural and technological. The knowledge and skills pertaining to an expansion of the individual’s understanding of his/her culture include the history, language and ideals of the society in which one lives. The second criterion is the same obligation in the realm of the society’s technology base, in the broader sense of “technology”, namely the “techniques” by which the society copes with the various challenges of its existence: food, heat, light, communication, transportation, lodging, water, to name a few of the obvious. The technology requirement presumes specialization in some aspect of these social needs.
b.   Individual
Higher education’s obligation to enhance the individual’s well-being and success in his/her society include more personal knowledge and skills. Included here are topics such as religion, a practical understanding of how society is organized and functions, how government works, problem-solving skills such as logic, research, factual versus false data, appreciation of the arts, including painting, architectural, music, and the like.
 These are areas frequently of controversy. How to deal with dissent, to weave one’s own way though the thicket of varying opinions, false claims and disputed facts represents a valuable but illusive skill which should be part of every college experience.
We have now set the stage for a discussion of the future of higher education:
Higher education exists to serve society and the individual by expanding his/her knowledge and skills of
·       Society’s culture and technology
·       Individual’s personal well-being
In this manner, higher education seeks to expand the individual’s success in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
I have always been intrigued by the concept of “Individual Educational Plans” (IEP), defined as “a written plan/program [which]… specifies the student’s academic goals and the method to obtain these goals.” Originally signed by President Reagan in 1986 and enhanced periodically since, the IED is required for all handicapped children.
What if IEP’s were specified for ALL children?
The practical implementation of such an idea was beyond our capabilities until the introduction into education of the digital age. Unfortunately, computers were confined to two areas of education, teaching content (a problematic application) and administration. It has not been used extensively for the application which it would be most fruitfully applied, namely, implementation of complex scheduling. Elsewhere I have designed the way in which computers could be used to implement IED’s for ALL children. Needless to say, I was ahead of my time (where I spent most of my later years in education!).
However, I believe such a plan could now be implemented for higher education with today’s technology. After all, we were able to execute a form of this pedagogy in the 1970’s before computers were even introduced, as I explain the accompanying essay (see “The Fiddler and Me” attached).
The system would draw heavily from several sources: the Oxford University tutorial method of instruction, computer-based scheduling (which I helped introduce in my post-Crown Center career with Control Data Corporation) and doctoral degree programs, as well as the credit-for-experience, Portfolio Plan, which I pioneered in Kansas City’s Crown Center campus (details in accompanying essay). A very significant addition would be the computer-based courseware now available as well as the internet with its nearly unlimited research resources.
Briefly, the system would look like this:
1.     Each student would be assigned an individual carrel (as in graduate student libraries), equipped with desktop computer, software, headphones and webcam. (Fits nicely with social distancing.)
2.    Academic Plan – the first exercise would be a class which introduced the students to the system with the following components:
Development of his/her IEP based on each student’s individual interests and guided by a personal academic advisor. “What do you know now? (Portfolio optional) What don’t you know now that you would like to know? How will you acquire that expertise? How will we measure what you have learned? (Thesis required.)” Content could be achieved at the student’s discretion by seminar, tutorial or digitally. Benchmark endorsements from faculty required.
3.    A basic curriculum, to be attended by all students, addressing the commonly accepted cultural competences required by society, and graded on a Pass/Fail basis, with the requirement of an in-depth essay on a topic of the student’s choice.
4.   During each noon break a lecture would be given in the dining room by a professor on his/her chosen topic (attendance optional) addressing some aspect of culture or technology.
5.    Live instruction would take place in seminars attended by students whose interests were common to all, scheduled by computer as sorted by the common interests of the designated students. Individual tutorials, noon lectures and online course ware also provided as stipulated in the academic plan (IEP).
6.   Graduation – a thesis fulfilling the pre-arranged metrics for successful achievement would be published and presented in an oral defense to a panel of experts. Upon acceptance, the student would be graduated with the appropriate degree.
Many details are left undeveloped here because of space limitations. However, I hope this vision will be achieved somewhere down the road as higher education continues to evolve.
© 2020 Richfield Press. All rights reserved.
The Fiddler and Me
By Dr. Larry Fedewa (June 27, 2020)
The 1971 movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” was on TV last night. It reminded me of an experience I had a few years later in which that film played a part.
At the time, I was in a very challenging situation. It began in 1973 when I was Vice President and Dean of the College at Park College in suburban Kansas City, Missouri. I was facing another deficit for the fiscal year, 1973-74 with no additional funding in sight to fill the gap.
Then I saw a notice that the U.S. Department of Education was seeking proposals for educational innovation. I had no experience in writing proposals for government programs (or any other programs, for that matter). But I was desperate enough to try anything. So, I notified my secretary that I would be out of the office for the next few days, packed up all my data, and headed for home.
 The next two weeks were as demanding as any I have ever experienced. I actually designed an entire college from scratch – based on entirely different fundamentals than existing institutions – no credits, no classes, no set curriculum, with faculty in the role of Oxford tutors, guiding individual and small groups of students. A substantial portion of the learning experience depended on community resources. The government wanted innovative ideas, so I was bound and determined that was what they were going to get.
The other aspects were administrative – staffing, compensation, physical plant, and, finally, detailed budgets for three years. Since very few of the anticipated expenses were traditional, all had to be decided on a “best guess” basis. Yet, there would be no additional funding available in the event of a shortfall, so I could not afford to underestimate net costs.
The final numbers were approximately $1 million per year – and the total some $3.7 million – an astronomical number in my opinion. Nevertheless, I figured “in for a penny, in for a pound”. So, I mailed it and went back to work.
About three months later, I got a call from Washington DC telling me that my proposal was among a few finalists and a site visit was to be scheduled. The notification included several questions which the proposal reviewers had, and the answers would be expected by the visitor.
The site inspection was conducted by a very personable young man, and it soon became evident that the visit was merely proforma and the grant had already been approved. I was suddenly responsible for a multi-million dollar budget to fund an institution which existed only in my head!
Then began the most stressful and exciting episode of my life. I had to document — explain and defend — and then build an academic institution around principles which were so novel that no one could help me. And I started in March for the next fiscal year which started on July 1.
Here is a summary of what I had developed:
1.   Definition of a college degree: “A public declaration by a college faculty that an individual has demonstrated competence in certain areas of human knowledge and skill as determined by said faculty to be commonly accepted as contributing to the common good.”
2.   Evaluation criteria: Human knowledge is evaluated on the basis of performance and the ability to communicate. It is not measurable on the accounting basis of small segments called credits.
3.   The contract between the student and the institution: the student must demonstrate by performance and communication to the satisfaction of the faculty, who in turn then owe the student a degree.
4.   Since that demonstration requires a period of time, at least one year is hereby stipulated as the minimum period of performance and communication.
5.   Academic plan: in order to provide both parties to the college contract a means of achieving both performance and communication of a specialty, each student will be assisted in developing an Academic Plan. In simple terms, the plan answers three questions:
What do you wish to know that you do not know now? (goal)
How will you learn what you don’t know? (curriculum)
How will we know that you have achieved that goal? (Metric)
6.   Functional tools:
Q. What do you now know?
A. Preparation of the “Portfolio Plan” – documentation of all knowledge attained including diplomas, transcripts, certificates of vocational training, sports or medical training, art, video, or other productions, noteworthy life experience. etc.
B. Declaration of academic goal and metric for achievement
C. Assignment of expert (major professor) – College
D. Assignment of members of degree Board – College
E. Development and presentation to Board of proposed course of study to achieve educational goal
F. Final presentation to Board of proof of achievement.
7. Graduation  
Months of frenetic activity followed, including some missteps. My principal collaborator In this project was Don Hall (son of Hallmark’s founder, Joyce Hall), President of Hallmark’s development of Crown Center, “Kansas City’s New Town in Town”, who had supported our location of the branch campus, “Park College/Crown Center”. We thus had not only the best location in town but also the newest construction. We did open in September and that was a whole new experience!
There was a fad in education at the time for higher education to offer a wide variety of non-credit, “adult education” courses – everything from hobbies to serious topics, e.g. household budgeting, SAT/ACT/GRE test preparation, various topics in history or literature, etc. I was convinced by my advisors that Kansas City was underserved in these areas, so I concentrated my efforts and those of my new staff on assembling a large and credible list of “adult education” offerings for the fall term. At the bottom of the last page of our catalog, was listed a new degree program for students over 25 years of age called “the Portfolio Plan”. I assumed that we might get five or six candidates who were courageous enough to try something so new and vaguely described.
Since all our efforts had been focused on the adult education segment, I had not trained anyone of the new staff in the job of “Academic Counselor” upon whom the early burden of the program was to fall. So, I made provisions for three of my little staff to attend while I personally explained to the student candidates what the program was and how it would be run.
You can imagine my surprise — and horror – when the registration day showed over 50 candidates for the program! Not only that, but the first class meeting added about 50 more hoping for late registration!
Since the conference room scheduled was designed for 15 people, we were looking at about 10-15 meetings just to explain the program let alone begin the one-on-one counseling with an Academic Counselor! I had about one day to figure out what to do. The first order of business was to get a larger room. The only one available that first night was supposed to accommodate 25 people. I figured with extra chairs we could accommodate at least ten more.
The second step was to split the crowd into manageable classes. So, an emergency notice was posted listing the three meetings of the new classes, the second two in the biggest classroom we had, which could hold about fifty bodies, but was expandable. The names of the first thirty-five candidates were listed and invited to the first meeting. Finally, I sent word back to the main campus asking for faculty volunteers to help out. (Out of the entire faculty, I got one volunteer the only professor on the whole faculty who was younger than I.)
The next shock came when the additional 10 or so candidates showed up the next night in addition to the scheduled 35 (by this time I had lost count). Most of the new group agreed to show up at one of the next sessions, but some could not re-schedule. So, we started out the Portfolio Plan with people standing, sitting on the floor, on laps, waiting for my message like it was the gospel or something. Anticipation was so intense you could cut it with a knife!
I was pretty anxious myself. I had never described the entire process out loud to anyone, even the staff (no time). But I soldiered on. As the questions began to flow, I realized how many details I was missing – so I made it up as I went along. The results over that first week were very encouraging if daunting at the same time. Since enrollment was not bound by dates, eventually the program grew to serve hundreds of students, especially when we opened a version of the program to the military Air Force Degree Completion Program students.
The portfolios were sometimes enormous. Many of the students had impressive backgrounds, and their majors varied as expected. For example, one lady, in collaboration with the Menninger Clinic in nearby Topeka Kansas invented an entire curriculum of “Dance Therapy” which was adopted by her mentor, Dr. Roy Menninger (son of the famous “Father of American Psychiatry”, my good friend, Dr. Karl Menninger), and his clinic and from there spread worldwide. Her thesis describing the details of the program including class plans was published and stayed in print for many years.
Another lady’s specialty was “Corporate Strategic Planning”, working with her boss’s boss at Hallmark (I had a rule that an executive in one’s own firm could act as Subject Expert, but it could not be the manager of the student – too much power over one’s career). On the basis of her final thesis, she jumped two levels and became the youngest member of the Executive Committee of Hallmark Cards. (We found that one of our most productive markets was women “empty-nestors”.)
I adopted the practice of personally visiting students’ personnel directors seeking employer tuition assistance for the students. I was not only successful nearly 100% of the time, but I found it a very useful recruiting tool as well.
This brings me back to the Fiddler story. One of that first group of students was a woman in her late fifties, whose very successful husband had just retired. She found herself with the funds and time   to finish her own degree which she had abandoned when she got married. She had always had a dream of going back to school and finishing her degree. Now was her chance.
In my first meeting with her and Dmitri, who was to be her Academic Counselor, I quizzed her about her goals, “What do you not know now that you would like to know?” Her initial answer was that she was interested in psychology because she had a son who had emotional problems, and she wanted to serve him in a therapeutic role.
I explained the division of “Psychology” into physical and counselling tracks. Both fields required graduate degrees to achieve recognition as experts. We concluded the session with my recommendation that she think some more about her choices.
As she was getting ready to leave, I mentioned that I had watched “Fiddler on the Roof” the night before. She responded enthusiastically that she had also watched the movie. She found it especially engaging because her grandparents had in fact been victims of that Russian pogrom and had come to America as a result. I asked her if she had ever heard them tell their story. She never had had that conversation. Were they still alive? Her grandmother was alive and well. My last comment was, “Well, if you ever want to hear that story firsthand, you’d better talk to her while she’s alive. Once she’s gone, so is her story.”
A few days later, she burst into my office all excited. “I had a long talk with my grandmother, and she told me the whole story”, she said. “It was breathtaking! All the problems and sacrifices, and all the good times and bad!” She went on and on, more excited than I had ever seen her. As she talked, an idea started to form in my mind. “Have you ever heard of ‘oral history’?” I asked.
As I explained to her, she was living in the midst of a gold mine of stories of a significant event in history, told by eyewitnesses (her grandmother and friends), which pertained not only to Russian immigration to America, but also undoubtedly has similarities to the other immigrations from foreign countries. It seemed to me that there was an opportunity here for a degree completion program. She was thrilled at the prospect.
I then had Dmitri (whose parents had come from Greece) contact the Truman Library and see if they had a program in oral history. It turned out that they did indeed, and we made arrangements for the Oral History expert at the Library to serve as our Subject Matter Expert (SME) for our student.
The result of all this turned out to be spectacular. My student, with much assistance from the Truman Library and Dmitri, completed her degree with a book of tales about the Russian Pogrom of 1912, told by people who lived it in their own words. Even before the book was finished, word-of-mouth advertising lead to her invitation to speak a various events locally. She was so talented at this, that the national B’nai B’rith published her book when it was finished. This led to speaking invitations worldwide and to B’nai B’rith establishing a national office of Oral History with my student as the Director.
She no longer had to worry about what she would do after her husband retired.
That is my story of the Fiddler and me.
(c) 2020 Richfield Press. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply